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The Darling Buds of May: Spring Blossoms and Workers’ Discontent

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The picture of May Day with merry lads and lasses dancing around the May Pole stands in stark contrast to the May Day parades held in the former Soviet Union when the top brass brought out their nuclear warheads to the (forced) delight of the comrades.  How did the bucolic rites of changing seasons become associated with Marxist ideology?

New York Tribune, April 30, 1905
Rocket weapons in a parade of troops of the Moscow garrison on the Red Square in celebration of May Day in Moscow. By V. Kunova, 1960.

There is debate over the origins of the spring ritual.  Some consider its roots in ancient pagan tradition, but in her well-researched work May Day Festivals in America, Allison Thompson places May Day festivals as first taking place in Christianized England of the 13th Century.

San Francisco Call, April 24, 1897

Thanks to writers out of the other England—that is, New England—May Day and its visual representation, the Maypole, became popular celebrations in the United States.  So much so that the festivites became de rigeur on college campuses in the 1890s and beyond, especially as more women started attending college, which at the turn-of-the-century was more like finishing school to reinforce ideals of femininity.

Boston Daily Globe, May 2, 1908

Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, NC), May 4, 1947

The serene, airy outdoor world of flowers and Maypoles sharply differs from the cramped factories and hard labor associated with the working man.

Omaha Daily Bee, April 30, 1911

The eight-hour workday was a pipe dream.  Sixteen-hour shifts of intense, painful labor were the norm.  The outdoor world of May—and any other month, for that matter—was foreign to the average worker who toiled 16+-hour days with hardly a day off.  But pioneers in the labor movement fought those conditions to lower the number of hours worked each day.

Peter McGuire, the founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, organized a march of 10,000 people in New York City as early as 1872 in an effort to change the long workday from 16 hours to 8 hours.  Ten years later the first Labor Day parade was held in September.

Nonpartisan Leader (Fargo, ND), September 13, 1917

By the 1890s the working man’s plight had become an international cause célèbre.  The American Federation of Labor introduced a resolution at its congress to adopt the eight hour work day, going into effect on May 1, 1886.  Failure to implement would result in a strike to be held the same day.  The resulting strike was a watershed moment for workers across the globe, and thus May Day became associated with the workers of the world.

Indianapolis Journal, May 1, 1886

Well, the United States was quick to dissociate itself from the extreme movements associated with revolutionaries such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and the spring celebration of May Day fell out of favor, especially in the 1950s.  But the workers’ cause couldn’t be ignored, either.   In a concession to laborers President Grover Cleveland signed into law the Labor Day holiday in 1894, with the holiday celebrated in September, not May.

Silver Messenger (Challis, Idaho), August 31, 1897

And what became of May Day?  In the United States it’s officially Loyalty Day as a reminder that whatever strife between man and government may occur elsewhere in the world, at least in the United States, fealty to country will eclipse fealty to cause.

New York Tribune, April 30, 1921

Read more:

The Real Maguire – Who Actually Invented Labor Day?
Khramtsov, Alexander.  May Day Traditions.
Thompson, Alison.  May Day Festivals in America, 1830 to the Present

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